Posted in #20 Books of Summer 2016, Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

An Awfully Big Adventure – Beryl Bainbridge #20booksofsummer

Book 2

An Awfully Big Adventure
Classic Fiction 5*s

Unfortunately I am away during Annabel’s from Annabel’s House of Books  reading week for Beryl Bainbridge: Reading Beryl but after falling in love with this author’s writing through Harriet Said, I put one on my 20 Books of Summer 2016! list.

An Awfully Big Adventure is set in 1950s Liverpool, a landscape still filled with rations and other post-war deprivations and the theatre. What a mix for this coming of age novel through less than rose-tinted glasses. It is therefore no surprise that Bainbridge chose to borrow her title from the classic play by J.M Barrie, Peter Pan where Peter has a throw-away line:

‘To die would be an awfully big adventure.’

With the title borrowed from a story about a boy who doesn’t want to grow the protagonist, Stella of Bainbridge’s creation is sixteen, far from grown up, yet with her first job as a stage hand in the theatre thrust amongst grown-up lives, a world she struggles to understand.

The setting is brilliant, the boarding house (and its occupants) is easily pictured amongst the bomb scarred streets and the lodgers who bear their own scars from the war. It was Stella’s Uncle Vernon who first proposed working at the Playhouse. Here is a man who champions her to the hilt while she, as is so often the attitude of girls this age, is embarrassed by absolutely everything about him. Despite the way he brags to his boss he is also worried and exasperated by her:

“Debating anything with the girl was a lost cause. She constantly played to the gallery. No one was denying she could have had a better start in life, but then she wasn’t unique in that respect and it was no excuse for wringing the last drop of drama out of the smallest incident.”

Vernon’s wife Lily is a more shadowy figure, forever at the edge of Stella’s life although towards the end of the book she ponders that:

‘it was unjust of her to disregard those thumb-sucking years in which Lily had held her close’

But away from the prying eyes and ears of Uncle Vernon and Lily, Stella visits the phone boxes around the theatre to ring her mother. The reader hears Stella reporting to her mother, but we only get to know that mother says ‘the usual things’

So it’s fair to say Stella is typical of her age, no more so when she develops a crush on the handsome director Meredith Potter, who at first pays her some attention but this is soon diverted by others. Ever the mimic Stella tries out a number of personas on him to try to recapture his interest, but it seems that her love is to go unrequited. In parallels to the play they are putting on at the Liverpool Playhouse when Stella arrive, one that Stella pronounces simplistically the plot is all about people loving someone who is in love with someone else, perfectly sums up the cast. There is much to love in the book as a whole, the symmetry being one of the biggest pleasures for me. The set-up at the beginning of the book which only becomes clear at the very end, is an example of the excellent structure that resounds throughout.

Although this reads a little more like a series of vignettes at first, the linking only truly becoming apparent at the end, individually as well as together each of these is vivid and simply fascinating. Fairly early on I realised that what is blatantly obvious to the reader has completely passed Stella by, and so only the sternest heart can’t overlook her slightly odd manner and have a little sympathy for the poor girl! But when she decides to make Meredith jealous, she sets in chain a sequence of events that slowly becomes apparent, making for a sublime ending.

I am now a firm Beryl Bainbridge fan, I love the darkness, the cleverness, the period details and the sardonic humour. Luckily, I have another title waiting to read on my bookshelf. I simply can’t believe it took me quite so long to discover such this national treasure.


A book lover who clearly has issues as obsessed with crime despite leading a respectable life

32 thoughts on “An Awfully Big Adventure – Beryl Bainbridge #20booksofsummer

  1. A lovely, spoiler-free review of a magical book Cleopatra………..and reminding me I have a BB compendium on the bookshelf, containing 3 titles. I might have to interrupt the books on the pile and do a sideways jump for a BB week, she is always, always, a wonderful visit or re-visit. Thank for the reminder of her. I re-read this one (and reviewed it) too recently to submerge again, especially as unread BBs are available on a bookshelf near me………..


  2. Lovely review.
    I really enjoyed this book when I read it. The atmosphere is unique and the set of characters out of the ordinary. There’s a billet on my blog, if you’re interested.


  3. This sounds like a terrific coming-of-age novel, Cleo. And I really do like the historical aspect of the novel, too. I can see how that context would really be an effective one. Glad you enjoyed it.


  4. Great review! I put Harriet Said on the TBR when you reviewed it but needless to say still haven’t got to it. Really must make an effort to read it soon…


  5. I have put Bainbridge on my list since your review of Harriet Said and this has confirmed I need to read her books – I never have but they sound brilliant.


  6. I love this book, I think it is clever and touching and fits a lot into its short length. It is set in Liverpool, where I grew up, which added to my enjoyment. I second what someone says above – the film is excellent, with Alan Rickman and Hugh Grant both shining.


  7. This is the Bainbridge I most want to re-read. Lovely review. Thank you for joining in BBRW2016, will add a link to this review in my wrap-up post.


  8. Lovely review, Cleo. I’m so glad you enjoyed this novel as well. it was my first Bianbridge, and I think I’ve found another ‘new-to-me’ writer to explore further. I love the passage about Stella playing to the gallery. In fact, the whole book is so quotable – there’s a gem on virtually every page. Great point about the symmetry too – the novel’s structure really makes it.


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